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Nowhere to go

Updated Apr 30, 2017 07:05am


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I AM intrigued by the thought that for an ambitious youngster, passionate about the arts and with a compelling belief in himself or herself, there may be no place in Pakistan to run away to.

The thought occurred to me on reading the biography of Naushad, one of our great music directors. Born in Lucknow, he became fascinated with music early in life. Told by his father to choose between home and music, Naushad ran away to Bombay at the age of 18. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Bombay of those times was the place to run away to for the passionate young. Naushad was not the only one. There were literally hundreds of others from cities as far away as Peshawar and Madras and towns and villages scattered across the subcontinent. It was a magnet not only for those interested in music but in dance, theatre, films and writing — a mecca for aspiring artists whose talents and ambitions were either thwarted or who had no prospects of fruition in the milieus in which they were born and raised.

There may be no place in Pakistan to run away to.

Bombay was a magnet because it also had the ecosystem of peer groups, mentors and patrons in which a young runaway could hope to find a niche and be accommodated. Naushad, after sleeping on footpaths for a while, found Ustad Jhande Khan (himself from Gujranwala) who became a guide and a link to others who could recognise, appreciate and nurture a precocious talent.

Thinking along these lines brought home to me that such artistic meccas exist in many countries. New York City is the quintessential example. Reading the biographies of celebrated American artists, one is struck by how many of them gravitated there from small towns, rural districts and depressed areas thousands of miles away, and how the city provided the nourishment for their talents to be realised.

London, Paris and Vienna are well-known examples from other countries. It is cities like these that keep culture alive and vibrant within countries and serve as beacons of hope for those who feel the overpowering urge to become a part of that culture.

One might wish such ambitions to find nourishment for their fulfilment anywhere in a country, but that is an impossibility because of the economies of scale and agglomeration. Much like clusters of industry, there are clusters of the arts where nourishing ecosystems become established. Some countries have more than one. In the US, for example, one can consider New Orleans and Los Angeles in a similar light. Young people attracted to jazz head to New Orleans while those hoping to make it in the world of film are drawn to Los Angeles.

Does it matter that there is no such place for the young to run away to in Pakistan? Is the artistic culture of the country being impoverished or not being rejuvenated sufficiently or being confined to those who have privileged access to it by being born in the right home in the right place?

Young men from Charsadda and Skardu and Turbat do move to Karachi for jobs. But does one know of budding musicians or artists or actors heading there from similar places with a hope that a nurturing haven would be found in the metropolis?

Lahore could have been considered a mini-Bombay in the decades when it had its major film studios and the Pak Tea House as the abode of writers. But that seems no more the case. Even then, at the Tea House it was only local students who could become part of the intellectual circle. There is no evidence of a regular influx of outsiders turning up with burning ambition and the hope of learning enough to make a living from their passions.

I hope I am wrong and wish someone will identify such places in the country. Per­haps some shrines, especially in Sindh, serve a similar function, though I wouldn’t put them in the same category as a place like New York where something new is always in the process of being born.

I am also sobered by the thought that over the last few decades places to run away to in Pakistan might have emerged for the young moved by religious fervour. Depending on preference, they could head to Raiwind or Akora Khattak or Karachi with the knowledge that they would find a haven with refuge and nurturing.

Some of these havens have acquired international recognition and youngsters have started streaming to them from the far corners of the globe. In a sense, they have attained the stature of the Paris between the two wars when it became the destination of choice for aspiring artists from the world over.

Could this be a reason that Pakistan has become known in the world as the centre of jihadi culture while its artistic evolution continues to shrivel?

The writer moderates The South Asian Idea Weblog, a learning resource for college students.

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2017


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The writer has served as dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (17) Closed

brr Apr 30, 2017 08:52am

An appreciation of art as well as a culture of innovation is what makes a city the center of gravity or a place for avant-garde.

Attaullah Apr 30, 2017 09:04am

A very thought provoking analysis sir

DIGGER DOWN UNDER Apr 30, 2017 09:05am

An excellent write-up by Professor Altaf. However, I would forget the past and look to the future. I would say, make Lahore the centre for film, music and culture, Karachi for theatre, drama and language, and Bahawalpur for Islamic education (which is entirely different from the current mullahism). The seeds of development are there.

wellwisher Apr 30, 2017 09:08am

hats off to such wonderful projection of "missing place" in nation.But now I am not aware if young ones run to Bombay, though they still "move " to Bombay,Delhi,Chennai and Kolkatta.

Feroz Apr 30, 2017 09:13am

Akora Khattak the biggest learning Institution in Pakistan and financed by the KP Government reflects a mindset that makes Pakistan what it is. Fruit depends on the tree you plant.

Deepak Talwar Apr 30, 2017 10:38am

Art is life. Without art life is hopelessly dull. We need music, poetry,literature, dance, drama, painting, sculpture and architecture. And the Muslims of the subcontinent excelled in all forms of art for hundreds of years. This has to be nurtured and encouraged, like the Nawabs and Maharajas did. This culture is our heritage, we cannot let it disappear.

Baber Gul Apr 30, 2017 11:03am

Nowhere to go? Consider Jeddah.

IAB Apr 30, 2017 11:36am

Great shortage of a focal destination raised in this article. In case of Pakistan it is more Dubai then anywhere else in Pakistan as it is the easiest place to go to as long as you have a passport and some money. But yes we need we need that place to run to ...... I guess being a predominantly agrarian country , majority of the youngsters proceed to the large cities from the adjoining hinterlands like most of the people from small towns and villages end up in Lahore. My father in law was the first one from to come to Lahore as a medical student in 1971 from Renala Khurd. Then he got married after becoming a doctor. The rest, as they say, is history. Now they have more than fifty houses of relatives in Lahore.......... No wonder Lahore has gone from two million population in 1972 to almost twenty million by now. Apr 30, 2017 11:36am

If only more Pakistanis thought like the esteemed author ... kudos for articulating with such clarity.

meelu Apr 30, 2017 02:40pm

Although the theory of nowhere to go for aspirants of arts have weight-age in Pakistan. Country's artistic class thriving for existence. Radicalization sucked the oxygen for inhalation of artists. In contrast to this, now society is moving and progress is in right direction though the pace is not accordingly as compared to opposite entity's velocity. Government if desires can prove to be mother of runaway;s by providing shelter and direction in centers like Alhamra also can construct similar institutes in thus far cultural hub of country, Lahore.

Palkir Apr 30, 2017 04:05pm

Art and culture thrives in peace and tranquillity. Pakistan since its inception has indulged in war and violence either with India or within itself. Unfortunately now India has been bestowed with violence and self destruction under misguided militant Hindu dispensation. There used to be times when Lucknow and Delhi used to be centres of art and culture during brief period of peace provided by Mughals and later these were replaced by Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Lahore when peace and tranquility was provided by the British. Now there is unending and perpetual violence in this part of the world hence no question of art ,culture, music or any other form higher intellectual pursuits.

Khanm Apr 30, 2017 08:03pm

Indeed we have art and culture ... art is restricted to politics and culture reduced to agriculture... folk..If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. Can we do that in a society restricted by so many taboos

sam Apr 30, 2017 10:53pm

very nice piece of writing

zam Apr 30, 2017 11:42pm

Sir ji,very informative article. I like your writing very much!

Anon May 01, 2017 12:06am

@wellwisher and Bangalore and Hyderabad also

Bickering Parents May 01, 2017 01:39am

Parents who lack basic parenting skills and make their personal problems the problems of their kids and (hence the world) need to be sterilized.

BBW May 01, 2017 04:43am

"New York City is the quintessential example....London, Paris and Vienna are well-known examples from other countries."

Once upon a time. Not today. NYC, London, and Paris have become global hubs for finance capital and the rents are stratospheric. A 30 square foot (i.e. 10 feet by 3 feet) "studio" is going for 50,000 euros in Paris.